Network Rail’s HR women uncomfortable around HR chief after allegations

Women in Network Rail’s HR function feel uncomfortable around the HR director following allegations that he sexually harassed other female colleagues.

A senior manager at Network Rail told Personnel Today some women in HR did not want to socialise with Peter Bennett, while a “vacuum of information” was being maintained over the allegations of sexual discrimination that arose in 2007.

Bennett has been accused of sacking two female workers while they underwent fertility treatment, asking another to remove her blouse so he could see her holiday bikini lines, kissing a female colleague on the back of her neck, and forcing another employee to leave after calling her “a f**king black bitch”.

He is alleged to have signed 155 separate confidentiality agreements over three years – the biggest of which cost £950,000.

It has also come to light that another senior Network Rail HR professional was allegedly forced to quit at the end of last year and sign a confidentiality agreement after having an argument with Bennett.

Describing the atmosphere in the HR function, the source said: “Girls in the department have always said don’t mention that we are going out for drinks after work because he will come along. They are uncomfortable around him and they don’t want to socialise with him.”

The manager added staff were unaware if any of the allegations were true and “the general mood is one of disbelief” that this could happen.

An internal inquiry into Bennett’s actions was held in November 2007, which found Bennett had committed the offences but had not acted maliciously. But the source called for this inquiry to be reviewed. “I would want someone to review what’s already been done and say ‘yes, that was done properly’. If they find it wasn’t done properly, they should do another inquiry.”

The source added that if a subsequent inquiry found Bennett had committed the alleged actions “that’s gross misconduct so he should have been sacked”.

Meanwhile, the union representing Network Rail staff, the Transport Salaried Staff Association (TSSA), has repeated its call for an external investigation into Peter Bennett. The union will challenge Network Rail’s chief executive Iain Coucher at the AGM on 22 July.

A spokesman for the union said: “Any investigation thus far has been rigged and biased to make sure Bennett gets off. The internal process was flawed as it was conducted by fellow directors. We are calling for an independent inquiry into Peter Bennett’s behaviour.”

The union claimed another member of the HR team at Network Rail, Jeff Bakes, head of compensation and benefits, was forced out at the end of 2008 by Bennett and made to sign a confidentiality agreement after he clashed with the HR director over the use of a ‘forced ranking’ bonus system.

The system pays bonuses to staff dependent on where they are ranked in the business. But there are concerns this could discriminate against women and people from ethnic minorities, who are less well-represented within the organisation.

The spokesman said: “Jeff Bakes was forced out by Peter Bennett towards the end of last year under a confidentiality agreement. We were negotiating with Bakes about the introduction of the system. He was arguing with Bennett that the system was incorrect.”

Network Rail has repeatedly turned down Personnel Today‘s requests to speak to Bennett and said he would not comment on any of the allegations.

Network Rail previously said: “We have conducted an investigation and we found no grounds to take any disciplinary action.”

Bakes was unavailable for comment yesterday.

Comments from HR Space:

  • Wingspan:
    “How does Bennett keep his job? I thought this type of behaviour was illegal. What on earth is going on? Doesn’t the government have an interest in Network Rail?”
  • A former Network Rail HR employee:
    “Personally, I chose not to pursue [a claim] through the formal route and in hindsight as an HR manager I should have. However, sometime after the event, someone else put in a claim that encompassed all incidents involving the HR director and it is stated that a full investigation was carried out. Can’t have been that full – nobody came to me and asked me for my side of the story.”

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